Anyone who has owned a pet can attest to the seemingly supernatural bond that can develop between a human and an animal. But in the latest novel from co-writers Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee, that bond rests at the heart of a twisted story about ambition, greed, and familial dysfunction. The Secret Life of Souls may be rooted in a touching narrative about a girl and her dog, but it quickly transforms into a blood-soaked story of horror.
Eleven-year-old Delia Cross has been a rising child star for much of her life, and she’s poised to break into the big leagues with a network sitcom. Her mother Pat, who once aspired to stardom, and father Bart, who enjoys his expensive toys, are delighted—even if Delia and her twin brother see their parents’ ambitions as self-serving. For Delia, the one source of comfort in an otherwise mind-numbing world of on-set tutors and casting calls is Caity, her Queensland heeler and closest companion.
Caity is based on a real Golden retriever of the same name, who belonged to Ketchum’s friend. When McKee proposed a story about the bond between a girl and her dog, Ketchum immediately thought of the beloved retriever.
“Caity reminded me what wonderful companions dogs can be, and she was the spiritual inspiration for our Caity,” Ketchum says in an interview with Paste.
Delia and Caity’s bond verges on unnerving, though, as the two appear to see with the same eyes and perfectly communicate. Their relationship reads more as a manifestation of how an animal can make us feel understood than a literal representation. But Ketchum and McKee wrote the book with one foot firmly in the evolving field of animal-human research.
“We did research on the actual Queensland heeler to see what their perceptions were like, and that was our starting point,” Ketchum. “Then we looked into studies about animal communication and animal-human communication, and we had that in the back of our minds while writing.”
Delia and Caity’s connection becomes a matter of life and death when Delia is put in danger early in the story. While Pat and Bart drink downstairs, an electrical fire engulfs Delia’s bed in flames upstairs. Caity races to get into the house, arriving just in time to drag Delia from the room alive but covered in burns.
But rather than put an end to the show business life they had envisioned for their daughter, Pat and Bart book Delia and her “hero dog” on talk shows, a plan that brings in money hand over fist. With fortune in sight, the two will stop at nothing to cash in on their daughter’s charisma, until Delia has second thoughts.
The book then takes hairpin turns that would be cruel to give away, with information meted out through multiple perspectives.
“It gives you glimpses of what people are doing and thinking and what their motivations are,” Ketchum says of the writing style, which he’s used in past books as well. “You’re withholding information at the same time you’re revealing it.”
For McKee, who primarily worked in film before co-writing novels and screenplays with Ketchum, telling stories through multiple perspectives is a way to elaborate on the world of film.
“In a film, I can only communicate what someone sees, hears, and, in some cases, thinks,” McKee says. “In a novel, you have access to the rest of the senses. A reader can step into another being’s body and live inside them in a way that films cannot replicate.”
McKee has been making horror films and TV shows for most of his career, including May and an episode of Showtime’s Masters of Horror. Ketchum has long been fascinated by the genre as well, and he’s the recipient of four Bram Stoker Awards from the Horror Writers Association.
If horror’s draw is the fear of the unknown, then the The Secret Life of Souls nails that uncertainty. From the first chapter, the reader senses that the Cross family is perched at a cliff’s edge, bound by their vices and a gnawing sense of unease. And though the novel revolves around the celebrated relationship between a young girl and her dog, it comes as a shock when the narrative grows increasingly grittier. But just when you believe there’s nowhere to go but further into the abyss of misery, the authors pull the story out of a tailspin.
“I think we fell in love with the characters so deeply that there was no way we could go out in a completely grim fashion,” McKee says. “They go through some harsh situations, but there can always be light on the other side of these trials in life.”
But desiring this ending didn’t make it easy. “Ketchum and I have both done so much digging in the dark areas of human behavior that we found it a challenge to push ourselves to a lighter, more positive place,” McKee says.
He’s right; The Secret Life of Souls explores such bleak topics as toxic parent-child relationships, child stardom, and our own hunger for media. It’s also about a girl who is deeply alone in her own world, save for her dog. That ultimately speaks to what McKee believes is the central purpose of writing.
“My only hope is that [readers] feel like they’ve lived with characters they can relate to in some way,” McKee says. “Storytelling is about sharing the way we see the world; it helps all of us feel less alone.”